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What Are Parties For?

For obvious reasons, much of the commentary surrounding the 2020 election has focused on Trump and his surprisingly large number of voters. Only occasionally have we been reminded that institutions—from the Electoral College to state legislatures—are responsible for the fact that, unlike so many other democracies, a speedy counting of the popular vote (elsewhere simply known as “the vote”) is not enough to decide the outcome. Yet one institution supposedly connects state and society and has received too little attention in recent years: the political party. Just what are parties for, and what are the consequences of parties failing to fulfill their proper functions in a democracy?

U.S. political parties are very peculiar creatures. In one sense they are soft, even ethereal, as they have no official and committed memberships in the way parties elsewhere do; they are open to all kinds of comers (such as reality TV stars). But in another sense, they are very hard institutions: they effectively merge with the state in setting the rules for political competition (making sure that newcomers have few ways of breaking into the game). Perhaps even more paradoxically, high levels of political polarization in the United States co-exist with hollowed-out parties, which lack robust internal decision-making structures and often have only the most diffuse of programs.

Nevertheless, some normative expectations of parties apply globally. One of the most basic is autonomy. Parties should not be front organizations for something else—such as an oligarch’s business interests. At least in the beginning, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was effectively a combination of a soccer fan club and a propaganda TV channel in the service of the Cavaliere (who entered politics not least to gain immunity from prosecution for tax fraud). From this perspective, it was alarming that the Republican Party declined to issue a proper program at its convention this past summer, instead simply pledging total loyalty to Trump along the lines of “whatever he wants, we want.”

This points to another function of parties. Ideally, parties produce policy ideas and turn them into a coherent program. However, U.S. political parties have effectively ceased to engage in this kind of work; at best they outsource it to think tanks or, as in Trump’s case, abandon it altogether. (Trump was infamously incapable of articulating any concrete goals for a possible second term; eventually the GOP came to the rescue, tweeting that priorities would be a permanent manned presence on the moon as well as a manned mission to Mars, things most Americans may not exactly have put first during the COVID-19 pandemic).

Read entire article at Boston Review